The inevitable yet politically well-timed arrest of one or all of the Rajapaksa brothers, legal action against all on all and sundry causes and cases had all been written into the script when common Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential polls. For the new government, it was at the very top of their poll promises and for the people that voted him it was their fervent hopes, expectation and anticipation. For President Sirisena’s poll-time under-writer and post-poll partner in government, it was (also) an electoral necessity, to say the least.
It does not necessarily flow that such harassment of the nation’s most-acknowledged war-hero would ensure President Rajapaksa’s electoral return early on if only he threw his hat into the ring. The nation did not protest, loudly or silently, when the other war-hero in Sarath Fonseka was harassed, cashiered and jailed. It might still have been one of the so many factors in President Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat, but Fonseka would still have to depend on a new government and a new president to restore his honour and honours. His native Ambalagoda voters were not with him (2010), nor with the candidate that he campaigned for across the nation (2015).
It may be true of Mahinda R, too, after a point. Unlike President Sirisena’s victorious 52 per cent vote-share and Candidate Fonseka’s 40 per cent losing vote-share most if not all of the 48 per cent votes that he had got in 2015 were his own. Yet he lost close to 10 per cent votes from 2010 should be a message of his own.
In a parliamentary poll where the candidates he might end up supporting cannot expect an automatic transfer of the famous Mahinda votes to them, even if he were to swear by them, may not happen. Yet, Mahinda Rajapaksa still remains the single most popular political leader in the country, and it’s for the parliamentary poll to prove one way or the other.
Ahead of the revived phase of legal action against his family members, President Rajapaksa had declared that the new government was going after him and family members even though he had graciously conceded defeat long before the final results were known and also retired quietly to his native place, in the nation’s Deep South.
The implication was obvious. That he might be left with little choice to fight back. In political terms, it meant that he needed his supporters and cadres more, or at least in equal terms, as they would continue to need him (particularly to win, in case of some, to win/retain parliamentary seats that might not look theirs just now).
The question remains if the new government could have done anything differently on the Rajapaksa front, after hyping up his leadership, his family control of the government and his minions for all the nation’s ills (on some of which at least, they had no say or control).
Their very credibility rested on the undefined, yet promised action for all wrong-doing from the Rajapaksa presidency days. With parliamentary elections promised to be ordered at the end of the new government’s 100 days in office, they needed to shore up credibility, that too when they had not possibly provided for a high and individual-centric 48-per cent Rajapaksa vote share in the presidential polls.
Questions still remain if the timing of the arrest of Basil Rajapaksa and the summoning of President Rajapaksa and his erstwhile Defence Secretary Gota R were all also a well thought-out diversionary tactic from the passing of the highly-hyped 23 April deadline for the conclusion of the new government’s 100-day programme and the ordering of parliamentary polls.
That the new government had not been able to abolish or dilute the Executive Presidency under the promised 100-day programme should rancour in the post-poll political leadership and the people who had voted him, alike.
The Opposition SLFP-UPFA (which is a globally unique institution) under party and alliance boss in President Sirisena should rethink their parliamentary poll strategy. Their idea of a delayed parliamentary poll (whatever the official justification) could (alone) be acceptable to party/alliance MPs sure of losing, Rajapaksa or not. If serious (particularly about capturing popular imagination), they should have chosen a less-technical issue than electoral reforms, to argue their case for delaying the parliamentary poll. It’s like the Sirisena campaign’s promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency, whose width and depth may not be of direct consequence in the rural South with the vast majority of the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist voters, majoritarian or not.
For the party or party rebels backing Rajapaksa (for prime minister or otherwise) to hope to capitalise on perceptions of continued Rajapaksa popularity in the Sinhala-Buddhist could hope to happen only over the short term. Putting the polls off to May 2016, when alone it is otherwise due, could cut both ways. Just as the new Government’s acceptance levels could wane, so could the continued popularity of President Rajapaksa, who may anyway not have all those transferrable votes in individual electorates.
Cutting both ways
Pre-election, personalised charges of political vendetta and police harassment may not sustain after a point, particularly in the case of the Rajapaksas, if they are still unable to erase popular perceptions of the same in their time. They too could cut both ways. Actions like those of Basil Rajapaksa, arrested on large-scale corruption charges, getting admitted in hospital, as if to escape/delay the horrors of prison life, may not go down well even with the ardent supporters/sympathisers of President Rajapaksa after a point.
Popular perception of Gota R’s position and contributions, if any, under the changed circumstances of Mahinda R could also become debatable. The new government seems wanting to achieve precisely that by not allowing the nation to take its eyes off him. But then, all these would work only up to a point in a parliamentary poll, where local issues and localised candidates too would have their say as much negative as can be positive.
The promised legal campaign against the wrong-doers from the past too could cut both ways, and even more. Not just those who had recently left power have had a past. Even while in the Opposition, some/many now in power have had a past that they would not like anyone to remind them and at the most inconvenient time. Political vendetta too could cut both ways, and none of them should be surprised if bones hidden for long in the cupboards (by whom, for whom and why could remain a mystery) keep tumbling out from now on, embarrassing them, in quick succession.
Faster the present charges of political vendetta and police harassment become quicker could those bones start showing up. It’s not about the bones purported to have been hidden under the soil and the seas in Nandikadal, the scene of the decisive, last battle in the decades-old ethnic war, which the whole world but some Diaspora Tamils and UN officials seem to remember and recall when much of the majority Sinhala South is steeped in comfort and uncomforting zones of their own.
Unlike the presidential poll, the parliamentary polls will be fought mainly in the Sinhala-majority areas, which are also the politically and electorally majority areas in the country. It’s also here that the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties and the shifting sights of the Sinhala Catholic voters may be more confused than earlier. That would yet leave the Sri Lankan Tamil community and their TNA leader in their electorally still-comforting Northern political cocoon, but without much electoral or post-poll consequence.
Whether strategized by the government leadership or not, the Rajapaksas continue hog the media space, long after they had left the government.
The new government leaderships have only itself to blame for this. Having started off on a one-point agenda of having President Rajapaksa voted out, they did not give any serious thought to the day after either in terms of the turn of political events, popularity-ratings or promises that were to be kept.
An earlier co-habitation involving an SLFP President (Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga) and an UNP Prime Minister (Ranil W) having failed (2001-04) despite the fractured mandate that the people of the nation deliberately gave them, any super-imposed cohabitation that the two parties have now promised could run into deeper trouble, unless managed with great care and sincerity. The voter might think of the possibilities between now and the parliamentary poll-date to take his call, and the political leadership(s) should be aware of it. Public perceptions of the SLFP-UPFA leadership seemingly having gravitated towards President Rajapaksa, the voter would be watching PM Ranil and his UNP for a behaviour pattern.
To memories of PM Ranil’s past in deliberately keeping President CBK in the dark over, and outside of the all-important and militarily-sensitive Norwegian facilitation of peace process with the intransigent LTTE could now be added perceptions of their present-day impatience for returning to parliamentary power on their own, but under the failed co-habitation model.
How the UNP in particular and the Sirisena-Ranil leadership is going to fill this credibility gap in the eyes of the voter would need to be watched and watched closely and with utmost interest and concern.
On the other hand, hopes of a united functioning of the divided SLFP leadership, involving three Presidents one of them incumbent are yet to bear fruition, whether or not it’s acceptable to the nation at large, or even all of the Sinhala heartland. It’s a stormy river to cross, and with no bridge in sight. They need to swim across, but a decade of lethargy in power has meant that they have all but forgotten their early swimming lessons.
The new government does not have to look outside not only for troubles, but also for trouble-makers, whose main contribution seems to be making the leadership(s) look less credible with each passing-day. Perceived Sirisena loyalist and later-day Cabinet Spokesperson, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, went on record on 9 February, the Inauguration Day that Gota R had fled with his family to Maldives. He was later quoted as saying that LTTE’s Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) was allowed to leave the country through the VVIP lounge without proper Immigration clearances and exit-stamping on his passport. Within hours, if not minutes, both were proved wrong.
It has not stopped, since. It’s inevitable that in a situation as the one prevailing in
Sri Lanka after the historic presidential polls, rumours and speculation, particularly regarding what the previous government had done or not done or undone and what all penalties awaited them, could not have been avoided. But they could still be made to suffer for manure and water. That’s not happening, and deliberately someone is feeding the rumour-mill, starting with the social media but not excluding the mainline media.
Hence repeatedly President Rajapaksa has gone to town, on how all the vendetta campaign against him and his family members (starting with ‘gifted’ British horses and a helicopter for one of them, foreign bank accounts in every conceivable Rajapaksa clan-member) has gone wrong.
The lesson for the rulers whether united or divided against a Rajapaksa(s)’ return to the centre-stage is clear: Do not look gift horses in the mouth or look for a gift horse in someone else’s mouth. If serious and sincere, they should look for the gift’, horses or not – whoever had got it and wherever they had hidden it, if at all, if at all.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary public-policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi. Email: (email@example.com)